Dennis Hong is incredibly, almost intimidatingly, energetic. When I met him at his Virginia Tech lab in September, he had just pulled an all-nighter writing proposals in his office and planning his latest round-the-world trip. He strolled into his modest Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) around noon looking remarkably fresh, and proceeded to promote his lab on camera with an affable gusto. Hong's demeanor is of a preschooler gleefully Crayola-ing the walls while his parents aren't looking — though perhaps that manic quality was induced by the thirty odd hours of wakefulness I found him under. “Don't print this, but I would do this same thing even if they didn't pay me!" Not that Virginia Tech has any reason to complain: RoMeLa is an astounding success.

The conventional wisdom is that America does the boring military robots and vacuums (the stuff that pays well), while Japan and South Korea get all the fun humanoids that look like Albert Einstein and fall down stairs. From a funding perspective that's certainly true: Honda has spent over $300 million and 100+ man years on its ASIMO humanoid, widely considered the most advanced in its field, and Korea funds robotics at a rate of $80 million a year, compared to a measly $10 million for the National Science Foundation (NSF).